Coffee Break: Denver’s Tom Boasberg on Leadership, Equity and...Cuneiform

Jan 6, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Michael Vaughn

It’s been 10 years since the Denver Public Schools (DPS) started its reform efforts. Under then-Superintendent Michael Bennet, DPS launched its original Denver Plan—the district’s strategic plan and blueprint for change—in 2005. When Bennet moved to the U.S. Senate in January of 2009,  Tom Boasberg took the helm, moving from DPS chief operating officer to superintendent. It was a mostly smooth leadership transition, and Boasberg updated the Denver Plan in 2010, keeping the focus on accountability, equity, choice and innovation. Under  Boasberg’s leadership, student achievement and enrollment  have increased significantly. So has community support. During the first few years of Boasberg’s tenure, DPS’ publicly elected, seven-member Board of Education was a bitterly divided 4-3 board that feuded fiercely over charter school approvals and school closures. In last November’s election, however, Denver’s voters made the board a unanimous 7-0 behind the district’s reform plan (recently updated as the Denver Plan 2020). Shortly before taking a  six-month unpaid leave to travel with his family, Boasberg shared a little bit about himself and the ingredients that have made Denver a model for stability and growth. Coffee drinker? Tea? How do you take it? Favorite place (anywhere in the world) for a cup of coffee or tea? No on coffee, yes on tea. Ideal situation: Chinese tea at a dim sum house in Hong Kong. Favorite teacher or best class you had in school? High school senior year, U.S. history, Mr. McCune. His handwriting was so elaborate and indecipherable it was known as “McCuneiform”—but he did a wonderful job bringing history to life and making us all think. Talk about how the (sadly) atypical leadership stability in Denver has been built and how it benefits educators and kids. We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in Denver to have elected school board members who are willing to lead on innovation and reform, and who refuse to back down in the face of opposition that is often more about adults than kids. It would be hard to overestimate how much that stable leadership has benefited our educators and kids, who have been able to focus on what’s going on in the classroom rather than the political arena. DPS is also bucking the trend in terms of enrollment. What’s led to the growth? Great schools. It sounds simple but, as we all know, it’s not. We’re getting there by letting teachers lead, responding to our families’ desires for more choices and pushing more decision-making, resources and support to the school level. While there is some district-charter tension in Denver, it’s not as polarizing as it is in many other cities. How have you approached that? We focus on equity for all kids regardless of school governance type. I have to give credit to our district-run schools, our innovation schools, our charter schools—all of our school types. We believe we’re all in this together with a common purpose of giving opportunities for all kids. We know the things we have in common are far stronger than the things that divide us and that helps us discuss and resolve issues we don’t agree on. The last great book you read, and give us a two-sentence review. “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America.” It’s about how Marshall, the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, worked to establish stronger constitutional protections in criminal cases. He is so well-known for his work in school desegregation that it’s fascinating to read about the extraordinarily courageous and brilliant work he did in protecting often wrongly-accused African Americans in a criminal justice system that had very little justice.  
Photo courtesy of Tom Boasberg.

Michael Vaughn

Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until Arne Duncan’s appointment as U.S. Secretary of Education in 2009. Mike then served for five years as the Chief Communications Officer for the Denver Public Schools, a national leader in ed reform.

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